Immigration in 1989

One excellent and concise source of information in the HIAS archives at AJHS is the run of Annual Reports, from 1912 to 2003. Many of these reports will be accessible online by the end of 2018. See also Janine’s recent post about annual reports, which includes many of the most interesting covers.

I was recently looking for information in the 1989 Annual Report, and came across a section titled, “Denials of Refugee Status by INS”. I found I was curious about the issues in play 29 years ago that posed challenges to the work that HIAS has always done – providing safe refuge for those fleeing unsafe conditions in their home country.

“INS” is short for Immigration and Naturalization Service, an agency in the Department of Justice from 1940 to 2003, according to Wikipedia.

This section turns out to be part of a multi-page narrative about the growing focus for HIAS in the 1980s – Soviet Jewish migration and resettlement, which greatly increased with the break-up of the Soviet Union. The lengthy Introduction to this Annual Report deals at length with the effects of a huge flood of Soviet Jews suddenly able to leave the Soviet Union. Most of these sudden refugees departed for Israel and the United States, and HIAS was involved with both groups at their processing centers in Europe – at headquarters in Geneva, and at the HIAS offices in Vienna  and Rome.

HIAS clients in Vienna, 1989. Photo by Public Relations Director Roberta Elliott

In discussing staff changes during this very busy year, the Introduction includes this:

In New York, it was an especially stressful year for Assistant Executive Vice President Phillip Saperia. In addition to his responsibilities for staff administration and for expediting the installation of the new information storage and retrieval system, he struggled throughout the year with the Immigration and Naturalization Service [INS] to effect a reduction in the rate of refugee visa ‘denials’ in Rome.

The numbers tell part of the story, its unexpected magnitude:

At first, during the early months of 1989, those leaving [the Soviet Union] formed a steady stream flowing westward; by the end of the year the stream would become a torrent. By Dec. 31, 71,000 Jews had left the Soviet Union, surpassing by some 20,000 the previous high watermark in 1979.

The numbers caught everyone off guard … the ceiling [for the number of refugees permitted to enter the US] is determined from the previous year’s numbers … In October 1988, when the federal fiscal year (FFY) 1989 … ceiling was signed, it allowed 18,000 Soviet Jews to enter the US as refugees; by June, it was necessary for the Administration to amend that figure to 30,000. Then in October, the beginning of FFY90, the quota was set at 40,000. By December 31, nearly 37,000 Soviet Jews had been admitted to the US as refugees.

Since the 1960s, HIAS had registered each family in Vienna when they arrived from Moscow, and guided them through the application process with the INS in Rome, where they applied for refugee status. The sudden increase in numbers of clients threw everyone into a growing backlog. Was the INS increasing their denials of refugee status as a way to work more quickly through the backlog?

This situation was further exacerbated by the most troubling development of all: rejection of refugee status by the INS for an increasing number of Soviet Jewish applicants. The situation of ‘denials’ had been developing gradually since the fall of 1988 when in one day the INS in Rome had rejected six applications … Later, when there were 11 rejections on another day, it was clear that this was a policy decision rather than the vagaries of one officer.

How did HIAS deal with the INS on this tricky issue? To be continued in a later post.

 

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A Written History of HIAS

It all started with a HIAS Board meeting resolution in 1983 that deemed a written history of HIAS and its involvement in the history of Jewish migration ‘appropriate’ and by all means necessary.

By 1984, the Executive Committee approved several thousand dollars in funds from the Liskin Family Foundation and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation in order to fund the project.

“Such a volume would,” according to HIAS President Emeritus Edwin Shapiro in a letter to the Board, “by virtue of HIAS’ historic and integral role in aiding Jewish migrants, highlight the work of our organization.” Mr. Shapiro goes on to applaud the Liskin family’s generosity by noting “and the fact that HIAS was the organization closest to Ida Liskin’s heart, stems to a great extent, from the fact that Mrs. Liskin never forgot that it was a HIAS representative who met her at the docks when she arrived in the U.S. as a bewildered, 18-year-old girl.”

Ida Liskin, that very same bewildered girl, later went on to become a notable member of the HIAS Women’s Division and remained a close and long-term friend of HIAS. She made sure to bequeath money to HIAS in her will.

Soon after funding was legally secured, HIAS organized a Book Committee to coordinate the publication details and chose Ronald Sanders, noted Jewish history author and historian as the author of the forthcoming tome.

The Book Committee unanimously agreed that “The purpose of the book would be to educate, promote HIAS’ identity, attract membership, attract potential leadership, attract bequests. The book should primarily be addressed to the Jewish community, students, (high-school, undergraduate, post-graduate), as well as to the general public, scholars, and practitioners.”

What a wish list!

Visas to Freedom by  Mark Wischnitzeranother written history of HIAS, only spanned the organization’s history from its beginning up until 1954. The Book Committee’s official opinion was that although it was a useful reference book, it was “dry and rather uninteresting.” (We are still looking for documentation to see HOW happy HIAS was with Sanders’ final publication…)

Wischnitzer’s book and Sanders’ book Shores of refuge: A hundred years of Jewish emigration, are both available to request and read in the Center for Jewish History’s Lillian Goldman Reading Room.

Let us know which one you enjoy more!

Whom Has HIAS Helped?

The work of an immigrant aid organization is multi-faceted. We’ve written a little in the past few months about HIAS’ Government Relations department in the 1980s and 1990s and their work with legislators to maintain government funding for refugee resettlement in the United States, and to make sure everyone on staff at HIAS was aware of continual changes to the immigration laws

HIAS maintained offices in countries around the world where they helped refugees, often while in transit with visas and other documentation. HIAS overseas staff hustled to find countries that were accepting Jewish refugees for 10 years or more after World War II opening offices in Tunis, Morocco, Athens, Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, Quito, and elsewhere as needed, for as long as was needed. In countries where they were not able to open an office, for financial or more often political reasons, they worked through other agencies and local groups.

And of course HIAS issued regular reports summarizing their works. We’ve mentioned in previous posts how useful the annual reports are as quick reference to annual summaries. There were also a compilation called “Statistical Abstract”, issued by various departments through the decades, often quarterly. A quick glance at some of the information in these statistical abstract reports gives us an interesting comparison with immigration today. Below are pages from an issue of “Statistical Abstract” from 1960, then issued by the Division of Research and Statistics headed by Ilya Dijour, from a few years after it began publication:

Statistical Abstract, first quarter of 1960 – cover
Page 1
Page 2
page 3
Page 4
Page 5

At a later date, with enough funding, the full run should be digitized; it’s a great resource.

 

Indochinese Refugees

Together with other resettlement agencies, HIAS participated in finding communities able to provide new homes for refugees from what was then referred to as Indochina. In a previous blog post on the use of “Indochina” as a place name, Elizabeth explained the history of the term, who and what it refers to, and our team’s reasoning in retaining it:

Today, the term “Indochina” is understood as an imperialist, Orientalist one. However, at the peak year of the refugee crisis, this was the term used in international parlance.

The HIAS archives team took the implications of the term under serious consideration while processing materials related to this refugee crisis, and we decided to maintain its usage.

Files from the 1970s that help to tell the story of the HIAS role in resettling Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees in the United States appear in several series within the collection, including the Executive Vice-President Files and in the Migration Department of US Operations within the Program Series. And now also in the files of then Financial Vice-President, Harry Friedman

Throughout the project we  have found poorly labeled files from the desk of Harry M. Friedman, who wore several hats in his approximately 30 years at HIAS: Financial Vice-President, Comptroller and Secretary [to the Board of Directors]. In our last delivery of boxes from the warehouse, two final (we think) boxes of  his files appeared, labeled “Asia”. On closer inspection they are clearly Friedman’s files from 1975 to 1977, during the resettlement of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Many of these files are, as was in use at the time, labeled with some form of “Indochinese Refugees”.

His files contain primarily, as expected, financial and statistical information – funding coming in from large US government grants from the Department of State and the Department of Health and Human Services, and how it was distributed to the HIAS network of Jewish Family Services organizations in towns across the country. Different for the HIAS network in working with these refugees, was that they were among the first non-Jewish refugees aided by HIAS. This choice, to work with the government to help people in real need of safe new homes, set a precedent that continues today, as HIAS broadened its mission to help those in need no matter their country of birth or religion.

Many of the resettlement agencies working in the US then, as now, were religion-based. Church World Service (CWS), United States Catholic Charities (now Catholic Charities USA), and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, were some of the groups who worked alongside HIAS all over the world, as they did with these refugees. The groups were allocated government funding to cover the costs incurred in arranging travel to their various local community agencies and then in helping individual families with English classes, job training, and general acculturation assistance at the community level.

One document that caught my attention was this one – a memorandum from one HIAS staff member to others on the team working on this project, including Harry Friedman. The statistics came from the Religious News Service, which explains why they are broken down by religion. The writer seems to refer to her Catholic colleagues in a way I hope they would have found humorous if they had seen the memo:

Indochinese refugee resettlement statistics, according to the religion of the resettlement organization

The camps Miriam Cantor refers to were the army camps where the refugees were living in family groups as they awaited resettlement to a community somewhere in the United States. Everyone worked hard to place these families in welcoming communities, as aid agencies do today. Details may change in the resettlement process, but the need remains as critical as ever.

HIAS files – Brazil

I recently processed 2 boxes of files from 1990-1993, which contain the files of Fred (elsewhere known as Ephraim) Weinstein. Fred had been the Director of the Latin American headquarters for HIAS, based in Rio de Janeiro from about 1958 to 1988. (He is listed in the 1986 annual report as the director of the Latin American Operations, but that is the last mention I have found of him in the annual reports.) There is a short gap in records by or about Weinstein until 1990, when he resurfaces in the New York office, in the Overseas Operations department, as the Director of Latin American Affairs.

His files contain mostly correspondence between Weinstein and members of the Jewish communities in various Latin American cities, and with colleagues in New York including Dail Stolow, who became Director of Overseas Operations in 1991, and several files of Latin American country reports he sent to HIAS presidents and others. There are also subject files on many Latin American countries, with correspondence and many  newsclippings from both US and Latin American news sources. There is, as expected, a mix of English and Spanish material, and one correspondent seemed to write exclusively in French.

One of the most interesting documents that turned up, at least for this archivist, is this 1992 memo from Fred Weinstein to Dail Stolow, letting Dail know the plans for the files from the Sao Paulo office and the Rio de Janeiro office. One can only hope that the transfers were made to Brazilian repositories and have been kept safe over the past 25 years.

Fred Weinstein requests authorization to transfer HIAS’s Sao Paulo files to the Jewish Brazilian Archives there, 1992

Weinstein’s memo also mentions a plan to transfer some of the Rio de Janeiro office records to “the Jewish Museum”, most likely in Rio de Janeiro.

Letter from UNIBES to Fred Weinstein, 1992, regarding the transfer of the Sao Paulo files

Anyone needing more information about HIAS’ work in Latin America from the 1950s to the 1980s may be able to follow the clues here in order to locate the HIAS files. Fortunately, the Jewish Brazilian Archives in Sao Paulo (Arquivo Historico Judaico Brasileiro), has a very current website: http://www.ahjb.org.br/

A certain amount of information on HIAS work in Latin America can be pulled from the records in our collection (particularly the Executive Vice-President files and even the excellent country summaries in the annual reports), but for the overseas files themselves travel is probably required.

There is never anything routine in the saving of a life

Karl Zukerman, HIAS Executive Vice-President (1984-1991) wrote a memo to his “fellow HIAS staff members”, on January 4, 1987 that he called, “A Note for the New Year”.

Memorandum to all HIAS staff, 1987, page 1

He started off, “As I walked by the office of one of the migration staff last Thursday, I overhead part of a phone conversation she was having with someone who, apparently, was the family member of a Jew in Iran. What I heard was,

When you know when your relative will be escaping into Pakistan, please call me so that …

Zukerman continued, “… just the opening phrase brought me up short! I’ve been working for HIAS over five years, a lot less than many of you, but still I’ve been involved in some “interesting” cases.

“Yet the idea, the situation, so simply described in that opening phrase, took my breath away. It helped remind me of just how fundamental is the work we all do … it’s important to remember that there is never anything routine in the saving of a life or the redeeming of a captive.”

There is probably a copy in Zukerman’s Executive Vice-President files, but the copy I found is located elsewhere – in the files Haim Halachmi, then the director of the HIAS office in Israel. Unfortunately the copy is on thermal fax paper, and the fax machine at one end or another had a blurry streak down the left side of the document on both pages.

Memorandum to all HIAS staff, page 2

Zukerman ends with, “No matter how long you’ve been at HIAS, remind yourself of the drama and significance in which you play a part. Remember how important a part you play in the most important of all activities, saving lives. Remember ‘…escaping into Pakistan…’ “

More than just a pretty facade: HIAS at Lafayette Street

The Astor Library in 1854.
Unknown – Harry Miller Lydenberg (July 1916). “History of the New York Public Library”. Bulletin of the New York Public Library 20: 570-571.; first published in Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion

The building that stands at 425 Lafayette Street today was originally built as a home for the East Village’s lavish Astor Library. After more than fifty years of serving the public, the library consolidated with the Lenox Library and the Tilden Foundation to become what we now recognize as the New York Public Library.

But what was to become of this architectural marvel? Enter the up-and-coming organization called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

HIAS hired architect Benjamin Levitan to oversee the necessary alterations to create a suitable New York City headquarters. He was very impressed by the building’s original grand structure, including its southerly double-height spaces, elaborate iron and wood book stacks, columns, skylights, and vaulted ceilings—but knew that the building had to become more than just a place for well-designed silent reflection. Levitan and HIAS wanted to create a place that was welcoming, yet able to provide newly-arrived Jewish immigrants the aid, emergency shelter, and sanctuary for religious practice, they sought and deserved as they began their new lives in New York.

After the final structural reconstruction efforts were finished, a community bazaar was held to furnish the building, it was dedicated by President Warren G. Harding on June 5, 1920. This new HIAS location provided ample space for both the organization’s Executive headquarters and facilities to ease immigrants into many aspects of American life.

The building’s features and services included:

  • Separate dormitories for men and women
  • Two kosher kitchens—one for meat preparation and one for dairy
  • A large dining room for comfortable, communal, social eating
  • An operating synagogue, both for those living within HIAS’ walls and neighborhood residents
  • Holiday celebrations, such as a yearly neighborhood Passover Seder
  • Facilities for children, including donated toys and games, classrooms, and a playground

In addition to providing personal shelter and community interaction, 425 Lafayette Street also became ‘base camp’ for various HIAS-sponsored immigration and community services:

HIAS Immigrant Bank
The bank, which was licensed by NY State, was established in 1923 and limited itself to the receiving and transmitting of money to/from immigrants’ families abroad. For many years, no other U.S. banks would send dollars abroad.

Citizenship Services
The HIAS offices were open every Sunday in order to accommodate those who were not able to apply for citizenship applications during the week. HIAS office staff also prepared Affidavits of Support and led citizenship classes for clients during these extra weekend hours.

Ellis Island Services
HIAS set up satellite offices at Ellis Island in order to offer personal and immediate aid to those arriving in New York, those who were in danger of being deported back home, and those requiring other forms of legal aid. 

In honor of HIAS’ work and how they turned one building into a place of hope for thousands of Jewish migrants, a plaque is affixed to the outside of 425 Lafayette Street (what now is the Public Theater). It reads:

HIAS plaque outside 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY.

This plaque is dedicated to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which occupied this building from 1921 to 1965. 

As the International Migration Agency of the American Jewish Community, HIAS’ work, providing rescue and refuge for endangered and persecuted people of all faiths and backgrounds around the world, continues to this day. Founded in 1881, HIAS has rescued more than 4,500,000 men, women, and children, including members of almost every Jewish family in America. Tens of thousands of these refugees and migrants were sheltered and fed in this building before they entered the mainstream of life in this great nation. 

HIAS’ current New York City offices are located at 411 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY.